So Lucky

by Nicola Griffith

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Publisher: FSG Originals
Copyright: 2018
ISBN: 0-374-71834-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 179

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The first sign of trouble was easy to ignore. Mara tripped on the day her partner of fourteen years moved out, and thought nothing of it. But it was only a week and a half before the more serious fall in her kitchen, a doctor's visit, and a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

The next few days were a mess of numbness, shock, and anger: a fight at her job as the director of an HIV foundation over a wheelchair ramp, an unintended outburst in a spreadsheet, and then being fired. Well, a year of partial pay and medical coverage, "as gratitude for her service." But fired, for being disabled.

Mara is not the sort of person to take anything slow. Less time at the job means more time to research MS, time to refit her house for her upcoming disability, time to learn how to give herself injections, time to buy a cat. Time to bounce hard off of an MS support group while seeing an apparently imaginary dog. Time to get angry, like she had years ago when she was assaulted and threw herself obsessively into learning self-defense. Time to decide to fight back.

I so wanted to like this book. It's the first new Nicola Griffith novel since Hild, and I've loved everything of hers I've read. It's a book about disability, about finding one's people, about activism, about rights of people with disabilities, and about how people's reactions to others with disabilities are predictable and awful and condescending. Mara isn't a role model, isn't inspiration, isn't long-suffering. She's angry, scared, obsessive, scary, and horrible at communication. She spent her career helping people with a type of medical disability, and yet is entirely unprepared for having one herself.

I'm glad this book exists. I want more books like this to exist.

I mostly didn't enjoy reading it.

In part, this is because I personally bounced off some themes of the book. I have a low tolerance for horror, and there's a subplot involving Mara's vividly-imagined fear of a human predator working their way through her newly-discovered community that made me actively uncomfortable to read. (I realize that was part of the point, and I appreciate it as art, but I didn't enjoy it as a reader.) But I also think some of it is structural.

There is a character development arc here: Mara has to come to terms with what MS means to her, how she's going to live with it, and how she's going to define herself after loss of her job, without a long-term relationship, and with a disabling disease, all essentially at once. Pieces of that worked for me, such as Mara's interaction with Aiyana. But Griffith represents part of that arc with several hallucinatory encounters with a phantom embodiment of what Mara is fighting against, which plays a significant role in the climax of the book. And that climax didn't work for me. It felt off-tempo somehow, not quite supported by Mara's previous changes in attitude, too abrupt, too heavily metaphorical for me to follow.

It's just one scene, but So Lucky puts a lot of weight on that scene. This is a short novel full of furious energy, pushing towards some sort of conclusion or explosion. Mara is, frankly, a rather awful person for most of the book, for reasons that follow pre-existing fracture lines in her personality and are understandable and even forgivable but still unpleasant. I needed some sort of emotional catharsis, some dramatic turning point in her self-image and engagement with the world, and I think Griffith's intent was to provide that catharsis, and it didn't land for me, which left me off-balance and disturbed and unsatisfied. And frustrated, because I was rooting for the book and stuck with it through some rather nasty plot developments, hoping the payoff would be worth it.

This is all very individual; it doesn't surprise me at all that other people love this book. I'm also not disabled. I'm sure that would add additional layers, and it might have made the catharsis land for me. But I personally spent most of the book wanting to read about Aiyana instead of Mara.

Spending the book wishing I was reading about the non-disabled character, the one who isn't angry and isn't scary and isn't as scared, is partly the point. And it's a very good point; despite not enjoying this book, I'm glad I read it. It made me think. It made me question why I liked one character over another, what made me uncomfortable about Mara, and why I found her off-putting. As a work of activism, I think So Lucky lands its punches well. People like me wanting comfort instead of truth is part of how people with disabilities are treated in society, and not a very attractive part. But at the same time, I read books for pleasure. I'm not sure how to reconcile those conflicting goals.

So Lucky is a Griffith novel, so the descriptions are gorgeous and the quality of the writing is exceptional. Griffith gives each moment a heft and weight and physicality. The relationships in this book worked for me in all their complexity, even when I was furious at Mara for breaking hers. And Griffith's descriptions of physical bodies, touching and feeling and being in each other's spaces, remain the best of any author I've read. If the plot works better for you than it did for me, there's a lot here to enjoy.

I can't quite recommend it, or at least as much as I hoped I could. But I think some people will love it.

One final note: I keep seeing reviews and blurbs about this book that describe it as an autobiographical novel, and it irritates me every time. It's not autobiographical. Yes, Griffith and the protagonist both have MS, are both lesbians, and both taught self-defense. But Griffith has put lesbians, self-defense teachers, and people with MS in many of her books. Mara runs a charitable organization; Griffith is a writer. Mara's relationships are a mess; Griffith has been happily married for nearly 25 years. I'm sure Griffith drew heavily on her own reactions to MS to write this novel, as novelists do, but that doesn't make Mara a self-insert or make this fictional story an autobiography. Disabled authors can write disabled protagonists without making the story non-fiction. It's weirdly dismissive to cast the book this way, to take away Griffith's technique and imagination and ability to invent character and situation and instead classify the book as some sort of transcription of her own life. And I don't think it would happen if it weren't for the common disability.

This is identifying people as their disability, and it's lazy and wrong and exclusionary. Stop doing this.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-08-27

Last modified and spun 2018-08-28